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And they’re not even good bitpipes

December 2, 2012

When I worked at IBM Research they would periodically encourage us to find projects that we might collaborate on with the telecommunications companies (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.). The telcos were convinced that their customers were looking to them for innovations and they were fundamental to shaping the future of mobile computing.

My take was somewhat different. I think the telcos are deathly afraid of becoming bitpipes, and they were frantically trying to find some means to differentiate themselves for their customers. Because their customers aren’t expecting innovations. Heck, they’ve even largely given up expecting quality services from the telcos. When was the last time you met someone with a high opinion of their carrier? The telcos are afraid of becoming lowest cost providers of wireless internet service, but they’re not even particularly good at providing that service.

While some folks are starting to think that Apple is getting too big and too powerful, one thing I really appreciate about Apple is that the iPhone provides enough leverage that Apple can largely dictate terms to the carriers. That means no crapware carrier software, and it means that Apple dictates the availability of software updates.

For several years I took the latter for granted, but since I joined Samsung I’ve been splitting my time between a Galaxy S3 and my old iPhone 4. The latter still works awesome and is running the latest and greatest version of iOS. The former is still stuck on Ice Cream Sandwich because AT&T is apparently incompetent at providing updates to its customers.

Of course, it’s not terribly surprising that the carriers, in this case primarily US carriers, suck at providing timely software updates. Since they can’t really compete on customer service, their main way to retain customers is to lock them into contracts. And if you keep updating your customers’ devices to the most recent OS versions they might not need to buy phones as often, and then where would you be? You might actually have to compete on the quality of your service. And the telcos certainly don’t want to go there.

From → Mobile, Musings

  1. Dennis permalink

    I follow you, but on the other hand also the manufactures would like to sell new phones – so why provide updates as they dont get any source of revenue other than selling the phones?
    An example is Motorola who sell locked bootloaders and almost never provide updates (at least not for the 2.3 generation any more)…
    Surely Apple updates their devices to a certain degree, because also an old 3G can make revenue in the App store. But on the other hand their devices are absolutely looked!
    So we can make our decision between worse and even worse….

    • Jeff permalink

      My personal take is that there’s a short-term incentive not to provide updates and a long-term incentive to provide them as much as possible.
      Yes, in the short-term it’s in the device manufacturer’s interest not to provide updates in order to force consumers to purchase a device. In the long-term that’s likely a losing strategy; the customer who got burned by not getting updates for a device he’s locked into for 2 years isn’t likely to buy from that manufacturer again. He’s instead going to consider alternatives where he knows (or at least hopes) that updates will keep his device “fresh” for a longer period of time.
      Faster (and ideally directly provided) OS updates is one area where I’d like to see Samsung improve. Given that none of the Android device manufacturers is doing well with timely updates right now it’s an area where we could additionally separate ourselves from the pack.
      Of course, there are device providers going the other direction. Amazon’s update model appears to be that you update your OS by buying a new device, and they’re trying to get away with it by pushing down the hardware price so much that you don’t mind. They don’t reveal sales figures so it’s tough to tell how well it’s working for them.

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